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Living the Life of Riley

Pacifican Riley Smith believes in taking care of the earth, starting with your own backyard.

As a full-time student at San Francisco State University, Pacifican Riley Smith has quite a bit of work on her hands. However, they are not so full that she hasn’t any room for helping out in the local and greater community.

For Smith, living “the life of Riley” isn’t so much about making sure it's an easy ride; it’s about improving the lives of others through service.

With a focus on Ecology within the biology department and a minor in American Indian Studies, the college junior is learning how to connect ecological restoration and cultural conservancy.

Along with being a student, Smith works at The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC). Her introduction to the center was through an AmeriCorps program that allowed her to work there full-time last year. Throughout the summer, mostly on weekends, Smith’s time at TMMC includes teaching programs and working with the stranding department of the Center. According to Smith, there are, on average, 30 animals onsite at any given time.

In addition to her work at the Marine Mammal Center, Smith accepted an internship at Romberg Tiburon Center by way of the RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program at SFSU. 

The ties that bind

“I have just really started learning about Native history. That is a huge driving force. It is crazy to me that I am Native-Shoshone and pretty much nothing of Native history is taught in school,” says Riley.  Bewildered by the misinformation and lack of information or resources about Native history, Smith’s focus has turned to the Cultural Conservancy, whose mission is to “protect and restore indigenous cultures, empowering them in the direct application of their traditional knowledge and practices on their ancestral lands.” (from the website)

“There are huge ties between the work I do with TMMC and Native culture.  Mainly educating visitors about restoration projects going on. It is also just a different way of thought than many modern people,” reflects Smith.  Learning about herself and her relationship to the earth has made her more aware of her place in community.

Over the last year especially, she participated in a variety of community events such as Earth Day activities and Coastal Cleanup.  She is also getting more involved with the American Indian community of the Bay Area.  This involves active participation in community organizations, pow wows, film festivals, gatherings and ceremonies. While most of us spent the weekend working on our homes or at FogFest, Smith made the long drive with a caravan of students to Indian Canyon in Hollister, California, which is touted as the only recognized California Indian Country in the California coastal region between Santa Barbara and Point Reyes/Clear Lake. 

Born in Redwood City twenty-three years ago in September, Riley Smith moved to and spent most of her childhood in Pacifica. Due to a career shift, her mother moved the family to New York for a period of two years when Smith was in 6th grade.  According to Smith, “New York was a very different experience, which made us want to move somewhere else. A big part of the move from New York was the culture shock. It was very different over there. New Hampshire was more of my family's style. It was more of a laid-back place than New York. It is beautiful in New Hampshire as well.” 

During high school, Smith’s family moved to New Hampshire. “For my senior year of high school I moved back to Pacifica with my uncle,” said Smith.  The network of friends Smith created in Pacifica is what brought her back.  “I was lucky enough to graduate with my friends that I have known since elementary and preschool.”

Most importantly, Smith says, “Being outdoors and surrounded by cool people is always fun.”  Taco Bell on the beach is one of her favorite spots because it provides “good, cheap food with a pretty view. It’s really cool how we have such easy access to a clean and pretty beach.” She also tries to spend whatever is left of her free time on the trails that run from Linda Mar Beach and Rockaway, taking a dip in the ocean and has recently attempted surfing. "I have a dive certification,” says Smith. 

Most of all, it’s the tight-knit community that keeps drawing Smith back to Pacifica. “I really like the people. There are a lot of people you run into and know, especially from childhood. There are always new people to meet as well.” 

Being of mixed Japanese, Irish and Native-Shoshone heritage, Smith notices more similarities than differences in comparing each culture.  With more and more communities concerned about the effects we have on the environment, Smith is also finding it easier to integrate global, modern approaches to ecological restoration with local and traditional, Native American land use practices.  These can include everything from how we get around to what we take in, how it’s disposed of and ways to renew and replenish what has been taken.  All of this hopefully leads to a truly sustainable life in ways that do not adversely affect the animal and plant life around us.

The current art exhibit at TMMC, Washed Ashore: Plastics, Sea life and Art, is a favorite of hers as it shows the dramatic effects of improper waste disposal on our coasts.  

Inspired by the Center’s current art exhibition, the Marine Mammal Center is currently offering a two-hour-long program consisting of a coastal clean up of Rodeo Beach followed by a workshop where kids can upcycle the trash by turning it into note cards and learn about “marine mammals, ocean health and how they can prevent ocean trash” on Saturday, Oct. 1 and Saturday, Nov. 5.

Camden Swita October 12, 2011 at 12:44 PM
Loved reading this piece, Gabbie. Well done, and thanks, Riley!
ajita kardon October 14, 2011 at 11:33 PM
I am SO happy to read about Riley on the web. She is a joy to volunteer with.

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